The Ninety-One Percent… —by Jinny Batterson
Most American media channels are concentrating their 2016 coverage of U.S. politics on the upcoming presidential contest. Because this year’s primary season seems even more circus-like than usual, I’ve been tempted to tune it out. However, as primary election days get closer, I’ll want a clearer idea of the positions, backgrounds, and character of those who are competing to be our area, state and national leaders. So far, I’ve too often been hearing simplistic “solutions” to complex problems, liberally sprinkled with one-line zingers and personal jabs. Almost daily, I get to view results of the latest polls of “likely primary voters,” often without the reminder that such results may represent a small, atypical sampling of the overall electorate. Primaries often have low participation, distorting our available choices in general elections.
Low voter turnout is a continuing problem in the U.S. Several recent off-year races in the North Carolina county where I live had participation rates below 10%. In mid-term general elections, far less than half of eligible voters cast ballots. Starting with the 2000 presidential election cycle, participation in presidential years has inched back upward, reaching its recent high in 2008 at just under 57%. Getting citizens to register to vote, then to show up at caucuses or polling places at election times, is a perennial headache for candidates and their campaign staffs.
Since even before I became eligible to vote, I’ve volunteered in political campaigns. My earliest efforts were slightly coerced—flier distribution duties in the local campaigns of my politically active father. Once I moved away from home and became eligible to vote, I got further involved in the campaign efforts of candidates I supported. Sometimes they won; sometimes they lost. At times I got discouraged at the apathy and ignorance of many potential and actual American voters (myself included). Whenever this happened, I tried to find a personal antidote—an example from my own experience of citizens working together on a mutual problem.
This past fall, our suburban homeowners’ association faced a dilemma—a privately held sports complex, consisting of swimming pool, tennis courts, sand volleyball court, clubhouse, and picnic areas, was again available for sale. The highly visible complex sits on a major traffic artery near the center of several developments of single family homes and townhouses. The overall HOA includes about 450 units in a neighborhood built a generation ago. In two previous sales cycles, the area homeowners’ association was not a potential purchaser of the center.
This time, when the current owner asked whether the local community would like to submit a bid to turn the complex into a community resource, the HOA board decided to investigate. Board members held phone and in-person meetings, gathered information, discussed pros and cons, then created a projected 2016 budget showing the costs of a purchase offer plus anticipated annual maintenance expenses, along with the increase in HOA fees required to offset them. They circulated the proposed budget with background and fact sheets. They announced a special HOA meeting to vote on the proposed purchase offer. Of course, rumors flew. One online discussion site was shut down when comments got too vitriolic and too personal. By the time of the special meeting, some tempers were strained. The actual meeting was brief and relatively cordial. Neutral gatekeepers validated the identities of on-site participants in the standing-room only crowd. Designated volunteers began counting the proxy ballots of those who could not attend in person.
The proposal was soundly defeated. It may take some time for tempers to cool; there may be future HOA proposals about the sports complex. Home ownership in our community is turning over. More families with young children, those most likely to use the swimming pool, are moving in. What I found most heartening about the process was not the result, though, but the high participation rate in the townhouse subdivision where I live—91% of households attended or sent proxies.
Such a high participation rate is unlikely to be matched for a town, county, district, state, or national election. To achieve our 91%, HOA officials circulated information, quashed rumors, held meetings, followed up when postal or emails bounced, knocked on doors, made phone calls, stayed calm in the face of often unfounded allegations. Our engagement rate relied a good bit on personal contact and proximity. Many of us walked or drove by the sports complex every day (along roads and sidewalks paid for by portions of our tax dollars, near a public park that is likewise tax-supported). We could see the center’s condition; we could run our own calculations of how the increased HOA fees would impact our household budgets. It’s much harder to parse the impact of our tax dollars.
As constituencies get bigger, they become more diverse, with a wider variety of competing concerns. In public elections, we may never reach 91%, but we need to do better than to allow our democracy to be reduced to a shallow shouting contest among those with the deepest pockets and/or the most extreme views. During our pool debate, we learned more about the complicated dance between public and private interests in our neighborhood. We got to know more neighbors. We came to realize that this year’s decisions may not be appropriate two or five or ten years from now.
The broader issues being discussed this election cycle do have workable solutions, but none of us has an entire or permanent answer. The widest possible participation is crucial. You can help! Please get registered, get informed, get involved. And, when caucus time, early voting or election day comes around, get yourself to the polls!